The Truth: Good Riddance

According to many people in the truth business, we are now living in a “post-truth” world where facts don’t matter and the news is fake and people believe all kinds of crazy things they shouldn’t, not the marginally less crazy things they should.

This is always talked about as if it’s a bad thing. But I for one am happy we’re entering an age when truth doesn’t matter, and I think once people get used to the idea, it’s bound to improve everyone’s life.

For example, there’s a lot of jabber these days about the scourge of “fake news,” as if the “real news” is somehow better because it’s so boring and sad. But as fantastical news sites like Breitbart have taught us, when journalism is untethered from the truth and reporters are free to report anything they want, the news is much more entertaining.

In the old days, for instance, mentions of pizza in an email might have been taken literally, and that would have been the end of it. But now, even the most innocuous and innocent-sounding things have the potential to blow up into big news. Citizen journalists are free to strap on a rifle and go “self-investigate” anything they want. This kind of thing never would have happened back in the days of sober, responsible journalism, because the “truth” would have been way too dull to mention.

Back when I was a lowly writer/journalist (before I became a highly respected “content creator”), I too felt the cruel restraint of “facts.” Stuff other people claimed was true always contradicted what I wanted to say, which was tremendously inconvenient. In most cases, I knew much more about the subject than any so-called “expert,” and was more than happy to share my knowledge. But I couldn’t, because a professional obligation to tell “the truth” hung over me like a black cloud. Honestly, when I think of all the stories I wrote that got smaller and duller because of a misguided fealty to journalistic accuracy—well, I just feel sorry for the reading public. Fortunately, now that we’re entering an age when people can make up their own facts, old-fashioned “snooze news” will be replaced by news that’s fresh and wild—unbelievable stuff that never would have seen the light of day back when stuffy, elitist “editors” were the gatekeepers of public discourse. 

Consider as well our main source of supposedly reliable “facts”: science. Everyone thinks science is so great, but it’s really a giant buzzkill. The truth is, scientists are always coming up with depressing facts that make life a lot less fun. The problem is, whenever scientists think they’ve discovered some important new truth—like the danger of inhaling gas fumes, or how licking certain kinds of toads can make you sterile—they go and tell the whole world. When that happens, people like me don’t think, “Hey, thanks for the valuable info”—we think, “There go two more things that used to be a lot of fun.”

Climate change is another problem-child of the scientific “truth community” that we can all be thankful will disappear once we are free to ignore it. It is said that 99.9% of the scientists in the world agree that the world is getting warmer, so we should all drive less awesome cars and try not to fart so much. But this isn’t a realistic solution. What we should really be doing is building cars with better air-conditioning and fart-neutralizing seat cushions that make everything smell like cinnamon. America was built on ingenuity, and it’s that kind of ingenuity that’s going to make America great again. Listening to scientists is just going to make everyone feel like there’s no hope. I mean, if you own a Prius, haven’t you pretty much given up already?

“Truth in advertising” is another boneheaded idea that’s sure to make everyone feel better after it’s gone. In drug commercials, I’m so sick of hearing about all the bad things that could happen if I take a drug. What I want to hear about are the good things. What I want to know is how that drug is going to improve my life. But when the announcer starts listing all the possible side effects—seizures, headaches, diarrhea, mood swings, dry mouth, scurvy, gout, chilblains, etc.—it makes me not want to take the drug, or at least think twice about it. I only want to think once, then get my doctor to prescribe me the pill. How hard is that?

In a post-truth world, almost everything else will be better too. Take church. In confession, I’ve always felt compelled to be honest and tell the truth about my sins. Now I am free to make up whatever sins I want—bigger, better, bolder sins—and be absolved just the same.

A post-truth world will also be a boon for recent college graduates and other barely qualified job-seekers. In a post-truth world, people will be free to claim whatever experience they want on their resumes, which means American companies will soon be hiring nothing but extraordinary people with impeccable credentials. Bursting with leadership and talent, business productivity will soar and everyone will get rich beyond their wildest dreams. No company will be able to excuse its lack of productivity on a “shortage of qualified workers,” because every worker in America will be fabulously well-qualified for whatever job they seek.    

The moral fibre of the nation will also improve in a truth-less world, because adultery will no longer be possible. Spouses who cheat won’t have to feel guilty anymore about hiding “the truth,” because without a truth to hide, there’s no way to cheat, only different ways to get one’s needs met. A person can hardly be blamed for tending to their needs. And without the hobgoblin of truth ruining extra-marital affairs, sex with people who are not your spouse will be more like taking a daily multivitamin—something one simply does, every day, to maintain their own health and vitality.

Abandoning the truth will also do wonders for the collective mood of the country. Think of all the people who waste their time and money sitting in a therapist’s office, rummaging around in their memory to find some sort of core truth that explains their wretched lives. Now that the truth can be ignored, however, people are free to believe whatever they want about themselves. Guilt and shame will be abolished, along with any other emotion that causes people to question or doubt themselves. Think of what a country powered by such super-charged mega-positivism could accomplish. All the energy people once put into questioning themselves could be put toward questioning and doubting others, and all the fear people once had that they were inadequate, damaged, or mentally ill could be directed toward wondering if other people are sick, crazy, or just plain stupid.

The justice system would be improved as well. In a post-truth world, when people testify in court, and the judge asks them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they can simply answer “no,” and say whatever they want. Speaking from personal experience, this will make a huge difference. Whenever I am called to testify in court, for instance, some shifty lawyer is always trying to trick me into saying something that will incriminate my friends or make it seem like whatever we did—fraud, blackmail, assault, racketeering, practicing dentistry without a license, or whatever—was wrong. Now I can just deny everything and call it a day, or make something up that will throw them off track. Either way, I win.

My friends in jail will also benefit. The few with a guilty conscience can finally let the bad thoughts go. Prisons that hold these alleged “criminals” can finally release them too, because whatever truth put them behind bars is now a distant artifact of time, a quaint anachronism left over from an era when people had to obey the law, or else. No more. A post-truth world is one in which we all get to take the law into our own hands—hands that will soon be able to hold a Glock .45 and point it at a suspicious person who is doing something un-American, like reading a book or eating sushi.

What the truth squad never wants to acknowledge is that nothing good ever came from truth-telling. Most of the worst scandals in history happened because some pesky, know-nothing journalist got it in their heads that “the truth” needed to be written down on paper, where everyone else could see it. Think what a fabulous world this would be if none of us knew about Chappaquiddick, Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra affair, the Sandanistas, Bill and Monica, the Iraq War, or Donald Trump’s bro-mance with Vladimir Putin. Think how much better we’d feel if we didn’t know people in Haiti are starving, or that polar bears are dying, or that America is now a plutocracy pretending to be a democracy, or that Hillary Clinton is a three-horned she-devil.   

Are any of us better off for knowing these things? Sadly, no. Anger, disbelief, and cynicism have taken over, displacing the human brain’s natural state of blissful ignorance with a corrosive whir of agitated awareness. If only those goddamn journalists had just kept their mouths shut, everything would be fine. You wouldn’t need heroin, oxy, or meth to dull the pain of too much knowledge, and you wouldn’t have to think about how dangerous your favorite drugs are every time you prep a needle or pop a pill.

In all of these ways and more, life in a truth-free world will be just . . . great.

Wars, let’s not forget, are caused by people fighting over different versions of the truth. Without a truth to fight over, there will be no more wars, because everyone will realize how silly it is to fight over something that does not exist. Believing in anything other than one’s own infallibility will become passé, and people the world over will rejoice in the discovery that ever since the dawn of human consciousness, the truth has been nothing but a big fat lie.

I, for one, am glad the human race has evolved beyond its primal need to seek new forms of truth. I know whereof I speak. I abandoned the truth years ago and haven’t regretted it one bit.

How Orson Welles Ruined Symbolism: The Awful Truth About "Rosebud"

For generations, English teachers have been telling their students that one mark of great literature is the intelligent use of symbols and metaphors. Over time, however, the public’s tolerance for clever imagery has worn thin, such that there is now an inverse relationship between the number of literary devices you can use and the number of books you can sell.

For those currently enrolled in one of the country’s six-million MFA programs in creative writing, this unfortunate turn of the screw is a harsh blow that will likely rock their collective boat and send students scurrying to catch the next bus to greener pastures. Seduced by the once-formidable cultural gravitas of the literary novelist, and persuaded to enter graduate school by the prospect of working for Target, these impressionable youngsters have staked their lives on the idea that it is better to say something indirectly through symbols and metaphors than to say something by just saying it. Stripped of these literary tools, many young writers find themselves in the unenviable predicament of having nothing to say and no way of saying it—a situation that leads many of them to apply for art school, where mystifying people with metaphors is still encouraged.

Before hitting the panic button and setting out to tend a new garden, however, it may be helpful to understand how we arrived at this fork in the cultural steak.

But first, a primer:

In high school, we all learned that a metaphor is a word or phrase that stands for something else, and is often used to compare one thing to another, or act as an imaginative bridge between a person, thing, or place, and a larger idea. For example, in the sentence, “The classroom is a zoo,” the writer is trying to tell us that the animals in the local zoo are an alert, studious bunch who pay attention to their handlers and do everything that is asked of them. Likewise, the phrase “time is money” tells students that the more time they waste, the more money they will make. People often confuse metaphors and symbols, though, which is understandable. Symbols are similar to metaphors, except when they’re not, which is why on the SAT, if you’re asked to choose between the two, answering “symbol” gives you a better statistical chance of being right.

This lack of clarity is only one of the reasons people have soured on the idea of using one thing to say another. If you don’t know what the first thing is, after all, how are you supposed to figure out what the second thing is?

But there are other reasons.

Surprisingly, the cultural tide against the use of symbols and metaphors did not begin to explode because too many of them were used in books. No, the problem started when they began showing up on movies. In the old days, movies told simple stories that anyone could follow. Then Orson Welles made the movie Citizen Kane, ending an entire generation’s tolerance for things that pulse with larger meaning and significance.

Now, before he made Citizen Kane, Welles had already damaged his credibility by airing a radio show called, “The War of the Worlds,” in which he pretended to be reporting that the world was being invaded by Martians. People panicked, believing it was true, and began calling travel agents to find out how they could arrange a flight aboard an alien spacecraft to get off this godforsaken planet. To calm the travel agents, Welles explained, “No, no, no, the Martians are not real, they’re a metaphor for human alienation and our fear of people who have giant heads and slitty eyes and bluish skin.”

You mean it’s all bullshit?, the travel agents replied.

“In the literal sense, yes, it’s a lie,” Welles explained, “but in the metaphorical sense, it is true—truer than any fact-based report of an alien invasion could ever be.”

Why did you lie to us?, the agents asked. To make us look like fools?

“No, to get at a larger truth—a truth that can only be told through symbolism and metaphor,” Welles replied.

Liar, liar, pants on fire, said the travel agents.

“That’s the idea,” Welles said. “See how the image of fiery pants drives home the larger message of my dishonesty?”

But what are we going to do? We sold thousands of tickets to Mars based on your report, the agents protested. Now we will have to refund all that money.

“That was indeed foolish,” Welles replied. “Perhaps you could tell people they are going to Mars, then send them to, say, Yemen or Syria.”

After duping the public on his radio program, Welles went on to make Citizen Kane, and that’s when the golden age of metaphor began sliding down the slippery slope of stupidity into the silver-plated age of loud-mouthed literalism.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a made-up character who represents, in real life, a man named William Randolph Hearst, who was one of the richest men in the world. Mr. Kane is not much of a citizen, though, and he does not need a cane, so the film is rich with irony right from the start.

Anyway, at the end of the film—after he’s made a bazillion dollars and spent his life building mansions, buying art, and sleeping with movie stars—the last word Mr. Kane says before he dies is “Rosebud.” Nobody knows what to make of this. For a while, people think Rosebud might refer to a woman. But no, at the end of the movie it is revealed that Rosebud is the name of the sled Mr. Kane had when he was eight years old. The End.

Ever since, generations of Film Studies students have been told that Mr. Kane’s sled isn’t just a sled—it’s a symbol of his lost innocence and the emptiness of material wealth. The sled represents the last time in Mr. Kane’s life when he was truly happy, and was, it turns out, the only thing he ever loved.

In recent years, however, students listening to this explanation have stared glassy-eyed at their teachers, nodding in silent agreement, while a voice inside their own heads screams, “That is complete nonsense! There’s no way a sled meant that much to Mr. Kane—especially that sled!”

Consider: The sled Mr. Kane supposedly pined for wasn’t much more than a plank of wood with a couple of runners attached. It couldn’t have been very comfortable to ride, steering it would have been difficult, and stopping it next to impossible. Citizens of snowy climates know all too well that sleds like that don’t work if the snow isn’t packed extremely hard—and if the snow is too hard, you’re looking at the kind of runaway sledding situation that often ends in a concussion or serious spinal injury, especially if you elected to go down head first, as any kid with an ounce of self-respect would surely do. When that happens, a down jacket and stocking cap can help cushion the blow, but when you slam head first into a retaining wall at full speed, there isn’t much you can do except close your eyes and pray. Thus, if Mr. Kane actually had a sled like that, he probably didn’t associate it with pleasurable memories; he probably associated it with intense pain and a trip to the hospital. You know, the kinds of things that happen . . . just before you die!

This is why no one believes in symbols and metaphors anymore: the messages they supposedly contain are notoriously unreliable. As we have just seen, the most famous symbol in the history of cinema is, to use a particularly aromatic metaphor, complete horseshit. The truth is, Charles Kane uttered the word “Rosebud” at the end of his life because he thought he was going to die, which is what he probably thought every time he climbed on that sled. There’s nothing symbolic about it. Nothing could be more literal.

Having perpetrated this string of hoaxes and lies in the movies, Orson Welles also poisoned the use of metaphorical symbolizing in literature. English teachers everywhere have been fighting the good fight, trying to get their students to understand the communicative power of a compelling image—but to no avail. These days, students are not shy about challenging a teacher’s authority. “How do you know the tree is a penis?” a student might counter, or “Maybe the flower is just a flower, have you thought of that?”

This kind of thing never would have happened back in the days when everyone knew what stood for what. But now, everything is chaos. People are free to interpret anything any way they want, so trying to inject extra meaning and significance into a narrative is pointless.

All of which is to say, if you are trying to write a book and still think you should pack it with symbols and metaphors, think again. They’re confusing. People don’t like them. And even if you come up with a good one, people won’t believe you.

That wasn’t always the case, of course—and I’ve got a one-way ticket to Mars to prove it.###